Fighter Pilot Is Winner as Drones Fly Over Idaho Crops

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Steve Edgar, a fighter pilot who operated wartime drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, is back home in Idaho. Now, he plans to use unmanned aircraft for a more peaceful purpose: Improving farmer crop yields.

Edgar’s firm, Advanced Aviation Solutions, in January became the first company involved in agriculture to be approved by the U.S. to fly unmanned aircraft over farms. Three others have followed since as the Federal Aviation Administration rolls out rules on how commercial drones are used in the U.S.

When the growing season begins this month, Edgar’s drones, which cover 200 acres (81 hectares) in about 20 minutes, will use high-resolution photos to measure plant health and thermal and multi-spectrum imaging to gain hard-to-gather information on watering, weeds and harmful pests.

It’s a technology that could be “transformational in terms of agricultural productivity,” said Matt Darr, an agriculture professor at Iowa State University in Ames. “If I have a chance to see a problem, I have a chance to get a mulligan” and make fixes.

A native Californian, Edgar, now 59, began flying at age 17 when he joined the U.S. Air Force. He later flew stealth fighter planes designed to avoid radar detection and worked for commercial airlines. When he was recalled to military duty in 2010 and was asked to pilot surveillance drones, he immediately saw their potential, he said in an interview.

Edgar was especially impressed by their usefulness in search-and-rescue operations he was involved with in Japan after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami which ravaged the country.

Wide Fields

Returning to Idaho, he saw an opportunity to capitalize on his experience in an industry that analysts have said could see the most growth in drone use over the next decade. The state, with its wide fields and low population density, offered a perfect chance to use drones to help farmers track plants.

“Once we detect stress, we can give farmers the exact point -- down to 3 centimeters -- where it’s happening,” Edgar said.

His Advanced Aviation is in partnership with Empire Airlines, an aircraft charter and maintenance company, and Blair Farms, an Idaho farm consulting company. The joint effort is called Empire Unmanned, and it plans to launch three crop-scouting drones this month.

The drones, powered by batteries, weigh less than 2 pounds, have three-foot wide wingspans and can operate at speeds approaching 57 miles per hour, according to Advanced Aviation’s application to the FAA.

“The scope is unlimited,” Edgar said. “My entire life has been in aviation. This is what I was meant to do.”

Precision Agriculture

The drones add another dimension to the growing practice of so-called precision agriculture, in which computerized data on crop diseases and other threats is collected by satellites and sensors to maximize yields and help avoid the overuse of dangerous chemicals, according to Iowa State’s Darr.

In countries such Israel, France and the U.K. commercial drone use has become commonplace.

In the U.S., though, the rules of unmanned commercial flights are still a work in progress, leaving room for concern over both safety and privacy. While the FAA bans commercial drone use, the agency granted 39 exemptions as of Wednesday to companies seeking to oversee crop yields, monitor oil and gas facilities, and inspect power lines and smokestacks.

To get an exemption, companies must certify their drones will be operated by licensed pilots, and a second person must observe the flights.

$1.09 Billion

Commercial use of drones, a technology that is widely used by the U.S. military in the Middle East, is expected to surge 18-fold to $1.09 billion by 2023, according to Phil Finnegan, an analyst at Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Virginia. The total market will grow 80 percent to $11.5 billion.

“Agriculture is potentially the largest commercial market” for unmanned aircraft, Finnegan said in an interview. “It’s yet to be seen whether these systems are cost effective to use, and whether they can live up to their promise.”

Edgar’s prices vary depending on what his clients are growing. For photographing a field, he charges from $3 per acre.

The National Agricultural Aviation Association, the Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group for aerial pesticide applicators, or crop dusters, doesn’t see drones stealing their customers. Andrew Moore, the group’s executive director, said the craft won’t be able to match the 500-gallon average payload his members carry.

Still, he favors regulations to require strobe lights on drones flying over crop fields, to make them more visible to pilots who might be flying through the same space. In addition, unmanned vehicle pilots should be certified commercial aviators, and their drones should carry tracking devices to show their location to other pilots.

“The whole thing about safe flying is to sense and avoid,” Moore said in an interview on Feb. 6. “You need to be able to see and know where these obstacles are.”